Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy

  • Description

    Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, Sichuan province, and grew up in Beijing. Sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution he later returned to Beijing to study at the Central Academy of Fine Art where he specialised in printmaking. During the 1980s he spent four years creating the Tianshu or ‘Book from the Sky’, which became one of the most written-about works of art of the late 20th century. Its fascination lies in it being ostensibly a classical printed book in four volumes, while its content in fact comprises a meaningless text of several thousand invented Chinese characters. Xu Bing settled in New York in 1993 and has maintained a studio there since his appointment in 2008 as Vice-President of the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. His work continues to explore language, symbol and communication.

    The two volumes Square Word Calligraphy were developed in the mid-1990s with a view to acquainting the Western viewer with the processes of Chinese calligraphy. The ‘characters’ in it are English words transfigured to occupy a square space as Chinese characters do, thus giving them the appearance of Chinese script. The first volume here comprises instructions on holding the brush, applying ink and so forth, along the lines of a traditional calligraphy instruction book. The second volume [EA2009.36] is a model or copy book, with words in red outlines for the reader or pupil to copy the stroke sequence.

  • Details

    Associated place
    1994 - 1996
    Xu Bing (born 1955)
    Material and technique
    woodblock and ink rubbing on paper; butterfly bound in camphor wood
    album 38.9 x 23 x 2.9 cm (height x width x depth)
    page 38.9 x 23 cm (height x width)
    pages 32 (count)
    Material index
    Technique index
    Object type index
    No. of items
    Credit line
    Purchased with the assistance of the Friends of the Ashmolean Museum, 2009.
    Accession no.
  • Further reading

    Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 28 February-19 May 2013, Xu Bing Landscape/Landscript: Nature as Language in the Art of Xu Bing, Shelagh Vainker, ed. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2013), p. 197, illus. p. 197 fig. 3

Past Exhibition

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    • currently in research collection

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